The Spanish Armada Is Here

Two Spanish restaurants in Singapore are eschewing familiar favourites to give us region-specific dishes: One is focused on Barcelona’s cosmopolitan cuisine, while another brings us grills from the Basque Country.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Yes, it’s a mini trend. But as far as mini trends go, this is magniflco. Olivia Restaurant & Lounge reinterprets the traditional Catalan home kitchen while exuding Barcelona’s vibrant cosmopolitan dining culture; and Basque Kitchen offers a new menu reflecting the strong grilling culture in the Basque Country, home to some of the world’s best grill restaurants. If you’re used to ordering tapas and paella, it’s time to expand your horizon and palette, much like the conquistadors used to do.
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"Olivia changes its menu every couple of weeks to make use of seasonal ingredients."

Olivia Restaurant & Lounge

#01-03, 55 Keong Saik Road

Catalonian Cuisine 101:

Dishes from Barcelona are unique as they have absorbed infl uences from Spain, the Mediterranean region and the international palettes that have graced this coastal city. Catalan culture equals atmosphere and service. It embodies the Mediterranean soul, which centres on the kitchen and the communal sharing of meals. And it’s all reflected here in Olivia’s dishes.

The Food:

Alain Devahive, a former chef at El Bulli and the defunct Catalunya Singapore, helms Olivia with sommelier and business partner Miquel Sabria. Their aim is to showcase the diversity of dining options in Barcelona, where traditional Mediterranean cuisine blends with contemporary versions of familiar favourites.

Alain (born and raised in Barcelona, and trained in molecular gastronomy) incorporates precise cooking techniques and experimentation with textures into his dishes, while keeping them approachable and palatable. That’s immediately notable in the starter, the “Catalunya” Lobster-avocado Roll ($25). This visually appealing fan favourite from Chef Alain’s Catalunya days is back by democratic demand. It is a lighter version of a regular lobster roll, comprising the juicy flesh of the crustacean wrapped in thinly sliced avocado, served in a rich stock made from the lobster head, and topped with caviar and ikura.

Another noteworthy starter is Black Rice with Grilled Calamari (left, $30). The rice is cooked in squid ink to give it a rich flavour and creamy texture that make the freshness of the calamari (or carabinero prawn, depending on the chef’s mood) stand out.

For mains, our taste buds recommend the succulent Wagyu Striploin with Truffle Sauce and Confit Piquillo Peppers ($64). The striploin is succulent, and the well-seasoned peppers add a mild sweetness to the beef’s robust flavour.

Decor + Ambience:

The owners worked with Catalonian designers and imported almost everything they needed for the Catalonian look, from chairs to plates to tiles. The decor is rustic but elegant, rather eclectic but without being Gaudilike. Ceramic artwork on the walls and pops of colour from the booths brighten up the whitewashed brick walls and terracotta floor tiles. The open kitchen also underscores the Catalan focus on togetherness and home dining, adding a touch of conviviality.

"Alain incorporates precise cooking techniques and experimentation with textures into his dishes, while keeping them approachable and palatable."
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1. The restaurant currently has a library of 300 to 400 recipes. The chef changes the menu every couple of weeks.

2. Alain Devahive (left in picture) and Miquel Sabria took two years to make Olivia Restaurant & Lounge happen. And who’s Olivia? She’s Chef Alain’s daughter.
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"The Oxtail Bomba with rice is topped with a quail egg for that extra elemental hit."

Basque Kitchen

97 Amoy Street

Basque Cuisine 101:

Basque cuisine is known for its attention to quality ingredients. Instead of being inundated with spices and sauces, it retains the ingredients’ original taste and freshness. The Basque Country also has a strong grilling culture and is home to some of the world’s best grilling restaurants, known locally as asadores.

The Food:

Chef Aitor Jeronimo Orive sharpened his culinary chops in renowned kitchens such as The Fat Duck in Britain, and Iggy’s (whose Michelin star he helped it earn). With his own restaurant, he is reinterpreting the traditional cuisine of northern Spain, where his family hails from. By experimenting with new methods of preparing traditional dishes, he adapts them for a more refined palate.

While Chef Aitor was born in Madrid, he chose to go back to his Basque roots. Irun, a Basque Country town on the border between Spain and France, was where he had spent summers with his grandmother.

His ingredients are largely sourced from the Basque region as well as Japan. He insists on staying true to the original taste of the Basque Country instead of tweaking his dishes to suit local palates. “If it were the other way around, if I were having Asian food in Europe, I wouldn’t want it to cater to my European taste. I would rather have the authentic experience.”

Case in point: the Turbot. This seemingly no-frills dish is prepared the back-to-basics way, with an entire turbot charcoal-grilled and drizzled with pil-pil sauce. The sauce is made from the oil the fish was cooked in, then spiced with garlic and guindillas – tiny hot red peppers – that please our local palates (but also set them on fire).

The txuleta steaks are also a Basque favourite. Made from cattle as old as 18 years, the Angus prime rib is grilled the traditional way over charcoal until it is charred outside, rare and juicy inside.

Another popular dish is Oxtail Bomba rice, inspired by the Japanese beef bowl (gyudon) after Chef Aitor’s trip to Japan. Instead of sushi rice, however, it features Spanish bomba rice typically used in paella, and is braised with Angus oxtail and onions for a rich, creamy risotto packed with umami. I believe the word you’ll be looking for when you taste this is “ brillante”.

Decor + Ambience:

The restaurant is a sleek space in Amoy Street, with an open kitchen so you can see the brand-new Basque grill – the prized workhorse behind the new menu. The contemporary look of the dining area is completed by a long, majestic black leather seat and soft lighting, reflecting the chef’s predilection for food with a modern, refined spin. And if you’re looking for Spanish wines, the bar upstairs has a huge cache of them.

"He insists on staying true to the original taste of the Basque Country instead of tweaking his dishes to suit local palates."

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1.The Josper grill cooks beef to perfection: crispy outside, rare and juicy inside.

2. The chef continually derives inspiration from Instagram and the dining scene in the Basque Country to develop new flavours.
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Delicioso Regional Food to Try

Spanish food is about more than gazpacho and chorizo. Here are some lesser-known but no less beloved dishes from a few other regions:

Andalusia: Cazon en Adobo

Adobo, a marinade rich in spices, oil and vinegar, is used across the Iberian Peninsula and South America to enhance the flavour and preservation of food. In Andalusia, adobo is frequently used to marinate and soften cazon – a small shark known as dogfish – which has an almost meatlike texture. The marinated meat is cut into chunks, battered and deep-fried. The result? Tasty, spicy fried fish that pairs well with Jerez sherry.

Galicia: Empanada

Empanada is one of the region’s most typical culinary preparations. The fillings of this pie reflect the rich landscape, from the Atlantic coastline to green pastures. Empanadas (roughly translated to “that has been put in bread”), can be made using a variety of meats, fish and seafood. Traditional recipes include stewed octopus, bonito tuna, or rabbit with aniseed. Historically, the dish was offered as an easy-to-carry meal to pilgrims travelling along the Camino de Santiago.

Valencia: Fideuada

A hearty seafood speciality, fideuada is a close relative to paella but uses a special noodle called fideua instead of rice. Like paella, it is prepared in a large, shallow pan with copious amounts of rich fish stock and tasty morsels such as clams, monkfish or prawns. The popularity of noodles in Valencia and Catalonia was the result of trade with Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Internationally, paella is more ubiquitous, but fideuada is by far the more popular choice in north-eastern Spain.